Called in, Part II | June 3

Texts: Mark 2:23-3:6

I’m not sure what to think of the fact that on the final day before a summer Sabbath from church life, the gospel lectionary is about Jesus misbehaving on the Sabbath.  It’s gotta be a sign.  Not so sure yet how it affects our Sabbatical itinerary.  Or maybe this has to do with your Sabbatical itinerary.  We’ll soon find out.

Having a clean, although temporary, break like this feels like a good time to do some reflecting on where we’ve been together.  It’s been five years now, almost exactly, since you called me to Columbus Mennonite.  It’s enough time to have a few stories.

As a continuation of last week’s sermon, this is Called In, Part II.  The idea of calling has a long and rich history.  Calling is something that beckons us in, to what some have simply referred to as the Great Work.  The Great Work lifts us out of our small ego selves and into the collective work of healing and justice and community.  It’s what Jews often call Tikkun Olam, The repair of the world.

Called in” is a phrase we’re borrowing from SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.  It’s a bit of a play on words.  Anytime you have a group of people sharing life and work together there can be a tendency to call people out for their shortcomings.  Calling people out usually results in shame and blame.  Calling each other in has a different energy behind it.  It’s the kind of call that matches up with the Spirit of Jesus when he invited folks to Come, follow me.

Today’s gospel reading presents a pretty spot-on framework for what following Jesus has meant for us.

The reading is composed of two stories that Mark puts back to back, held together by the theme of Sabbath.  Held together further by the theme of Jesus pushing up against the boundaries of Sabbath law.  In both cases he is accused of misbehavior.

In the first instance Jesus and his companions are going through a field of grain.  For most of Mark, Jesus is traveling around his home region of Galilee.  It was north of Jerusalem and predominantly rural.  Nobody in Jesus’ group owned this particular grain field.  But the Torah had generous laws about gleaning from other people’s fields.  It instructed land owners to not harvest the edges of their fields and to not go back over their harvested fields a second time.  They were forbidden from maximizing the ratio of grain in the barn to grain left out in the fields.  The land was ultimately the Lord’s, the grain a gift of abundance, and so some of it was to be left for those who didn’t have their own land.  They could come and glean.  It was a social safety net, mandated by law.

This practice is prominent in the biblical story of Ruth.  During harvest season, the foreigner Ruth goes out daily to glean for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi in the fields of Boaz.  She catches Boaz’s eye, makes a few moves herself to show Boaz she’s interested, and the rest is history, including having a great grandson named David who became a king.  Many more greats down the line was Jesus of Nazareth.

In our minds, programmed to uphold the sanctity of private property, Jesus and his followers are trespassing, but they’re perfectly within the legal bounds of Torah, and by gleaning Jesus is channeling the free spirit of his great, great, many greats grandma Ruth.

Where they are pushing the bounds is that this was a Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited.  There was vigorous debate within the community about what all constituted work.  Harvesting was strictly out, but is this really harvesting?  In his own defense, Jesus cites something that David once did, while he and his companions were hungry.  They went into a shrine and ate some of the holy bread that only the priests were supposed to eat.  The point: satisfying a basic human need supersedes religious restrictions and legal regulations.  This story ends by Jesus delivering a line that summarizes his understanding of this relationship: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind of the Sabbath” (2:27).

Mark follows this up with a second Sabbath story.  This one takes place in a synagogue.  In the congregation there is a man with a withered hand.  Jesus is being watched closely to see whether he will heal on the Sabbath.  During the sharing of joys and concerns Jesus calls the man forward.  Jesus poses a question to the congregation: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  Nobody says anything.  Mark next narrates this: “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, which he does.  Hand restored.  Does anyone else have a joy or concern you’d like to share with the community?

In this story there’s no way Jesus could be accused of doing work on the Sabbath.  He doesn’t even touch the man.  He just tells him to come up front, and to stretch out his hand.  But this might be one of those occasions where Jesus actually does call out his opponents.  They have been publicly shamed.  The story ends with them starting to plot for a way to get rid of Jesus.

It’s important to note that these stories, like many others in the gospels, should not be read as Jesus vs. the Jews, or free-spirited Christianity vs. legalistic Judaism.  Scholars have puzzled over some of these controversies which the gospels seem to blow out of proportion, or to mischaracterize Jesus’ opponents.  Strict and humorless Pharisees certainly make a good foil alongside Jesus.

What’s more helpful is to read these kinds of stories as a clash between different ways of viewing the sacred, and what lies at the core of human conviction – religious and otherwise.  They highlight this painfully common phenomenon of how what some consider to be misbehavior, others consider to be behavior that is faithful, compassionate, even logical, essential.

And here’s where these gospel stories start to jive with the story of CMC over the last five years, and really many more years going back.  Because, depending on your perspective, these five years both opened and are now closing with a significant act of misbehavior on our part.

If you can think back that far, you might remember that toward the end of that first year, this would have been the summer of 2014, we had a process unofficially referred to as “clarifying our welcome.”  This process actually went surprisingly quickly.  In large part because years prior the congregation had an extensive process that resulted in a public affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full members in the congregation.  It included biblical study, insights from science, storytelling, and study of wider church statements.  It was a discussion the congregation had been having for decades.  This made it official in a new way.  Then in 2014 we clarified that not only did this have to do with membership, but that the full spectrum of sexual orientation was a non-factor in regards to the couples we bless for marriage and who we might call to pastoral ministry or church staff.  One of its immediate effects was preparing the way for us to hire the best candidate for the position of Pastor of Christian Formation.  Mark has been sharing his gifts with us ever since.

This feels so normal and matter-of-fact now that we might forget how much this pushed us up against the boundaries of the wider Mennonite Church, and put us outside the clear boundaries of official church statements.  This was a risk.  It’s still technically against church teaching for a Mennonite pastor to officiate at the wedding of a same-sex couple.  The language used to describe such misbehavior is “at variance.”  We are “at variance” with official church statements – which would make for a pretty good two word bumper sticker I’m sure many of you would enthusiastically use.

When you’re “at variance,” reduced to a classification of misbehavior, it’s important to clarify, at least in one’s own mind, why and how the community is actually being faithful, compassionate, logical, essential, acting out of the best of our tradition.  So while certain isolated biblical texts get lobbed against LGBTQ folks, we have looked to stories like these in Mark – where we are confronted with two different ways of viewing the sacred.

One focuses on upholding particular boundaries and restrictions.  And let’s be clear: these boundaries have a profound power to give meaning and order to life.  They offer a world with clean distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the faithful and the unfaithful.  I’m convinced the power of a world with this kind of clarity is one of the biggest reasons many folks hold on to it so tightly.

Another approach is to hold the human being at center.  To watch and listen for what brings about human flourishing.  What brings about healing.  What meets the need for nourishment, regardless of whether this is or isn’t the right day of the week to pluck the grain from the field.  This approach claims that wherever there are laws and restrictions and guidelines, they must always be in the service of human thriving, rather than human thriving being sacrificed on the altar of traditional boundaries.  “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus says.  “Not humanity for the Sabbath.”  We could add that the thriving of all life is at stake.

This isn’t just an interpretative slide of hand so we can claim that we’re more biblical than others.  It really is an entirely different orientation toward faith – pun intended.

I’ve been reading a long essay by Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, and one of the most influential voices of the 20th century.  It’s titled “Christian Humanism” and in that essay he comments on these very stories from Mark’s gospel.  He writes, “In each case, what is of utmost importance is the fact that Jesus, for instance, in working miracles on the sabbath, is emphasizing the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones.  In each case, where there is a choice between the good of a suffering human person and the claims of formal and established legalism, Jesus decides for the person and against the claims of legalistic religion.”
(Love and Living, by Thomas Merton, p. 142).

Which leads into our most recent misbehavior / faithful action.

When we said Yes to being a Sanctuary congregation last August, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.  If any of you did, you forgot to tell me.  We knew that we had been a part of the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, a story we had just retold the week prior at our 55 year anniversary celebration – having no idea Edith would walk into our lives four days later.  We knew we wanted to live out the message on the signs we put outside our church building: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”  “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.”  We knew that Mennonites have a rich history of conscientious objection to state policies that violate our understanding of who Jesus calls us to be.  We knew there were times in Mennonite history when we have needed sanctuary, and places like this country extended it to us.  We knew this was a risk.  We knew we were going to have help.

And this was enough.

Aside from a few phone calls early on from concerned Christians citing Romans 13 that we should obey the ruling authorities, this has not been seen as an act of misbehavior by the wider faith community.  We and Edith and her family have been surrounded by support locally.  Our denomination, with whom we are still apparently “at variance” in one way, has affirmed and embraced this calling and told the story in a number of ways.  Like the words of Thomas Merton and the actions of Jesus, this is an instance in which human values take priority.

But this is still held as an act of misbehavior against the policies of the state.  And even though we’ve learned much in the last nine months, we still don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into.  And that’s OK.

I don’t mean to present misbehavior as a good for its own sake.  As a parent of young, but not- as- young –as- they- used- to- be children, I have a growing appreciation for healthy rules and boundaries.  They help give shape to our lives.  It just so happens that the shape of some of the rules we’ve encountered in the last few years have been a distortion of what makes for healthy living.

So what started as “expanding our welcome” with LGBTQ folks among us has expanded through some intense antiracism and racial justice work, and into sanctuary.  We’ve done some significant work.

But life is more than work.  Which is why Sabbath was made for humankind.

So that’s what we’re entering now.  I say “We” because my hope is that these next few months can also be a Sabbath time for the congregation.  Not a Sabbath as in ceasing from all work, but a Sabbath as in a time of intentional renewal.

If you’re out wandering about and get hungry, glean some grain for you and companions.  Shed another layer of unhelpful teachings you’ve absorbed over the decades, and bring into better focus the shape of your new life in Christ.  If you’re in need of healing, extend your hand and see what happens.

That’s what I’m hoping to do personally.

I’m grateful for these years of co-laboring with you.  And now I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a Sabbatical to cease from labor.  I wish you a time of renewal.  My intention is to come back rested and renewed, ready to be called in with you to more holy misbehavior in the spirit of Jesus.





Called in, Part I | May 27

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-10, John 3:8

I first heard the phrase “Called in” about two years ago.  It was right here, so hopefully some of you heard it too.  It was during our year-long focus on antiracism and racial justice.  Several of those sermons were in the format of an interview.  I would sit down with someone engaged in this work and do my best Terry Gross or Krista Tippet impression.  This particular Sunday our guest interviewee was Rev. Lane Campbell, one of the pastors at First Unitarian Universalist, just up High Street.  She has been a leader of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ.  Early on in the conversation she mentioned one of the core values of SURJ: “Calling people in, not out.”

It’s a value that acknowledges the difficulty of the work – the courage it takes to confront racism and the many ways our lives have been consciously and unconsciously racialized.  There are opportunities at just about every turn to call people out for their failures and blindness, historical and present day.  For our failures and blindness.

But calling people in.  That’s a different approach.  That’s a different kind of call.  The very phrase feels like it offers a fresh space.  The work is no less difficult and courageous, but now we’re able to enter it in a new way.

Called in.

Sometimes you come across a phrase that won’t quite leave you alone, and this has been one of those for me.

About a year after we first heard it, a year ago, I was pondering what might serve as a good theme for an upcoming Sabbatical – or, to be more specific and honest, what might serve as a good theme for a Sabbatical grant.  This was the phrase that pulled it together: Called In, followed by four concentric circles about where that calling takes place: World, City, Congregation, Self.

As that Sabbatical now rapidly approaches, that idea of being Called In, is back at the forefront, and not just for me.  The worship theme throughout the summer, and into September, will track this theme.  Guest speakers and different voices and artists from CMC will add their own thoughts into the mix.  And it’s a good thing Mark decided to come back once his Sabbatical ended.  He’ll give pastoral leadership throughout the summer.  One of the dangers of letting a pastor go on Sabbatical is they discover how nice it is to have flexible weekends, and suddenly realize why most people aren’t pastors.

So for this Sunday and next, before our family enters the world of flexible weekends, I want to talk about being called in.  Today in more a general way, and next week by doing some reflecting on the past five years of CMC life.  It’s nice that today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah is a call story.

As we do this, let’s cast as wide a net as we can for this notion of “Calling.”  Because it can be a tricky word.  Depending on one’s understanding of God and one’s church background, it can pretty easily evoke an image of God as this being who has this clear and singular plan for your life, and it’s up to you to figure out what that plan is, except that you can’t figure it out because there’s this spiritual deficiency in you that is preventing you from reading the blueprint, and it’s your fault.

This is not what we mean by calling.

Although it does very much have to do with paying attention and a posture of listening.

One of the clearest distillations of calling in the last half century comes from Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an author.  It’s quoted quite frequently, maybe you’ve come across it.  Buechner says:

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This is a lovely, and actually quite practical way of thinking about calling.  You can map it.  It’s a two circle venn diagram.  School is about to let out for summer, but here the pastor is trying to get you to think about venn diagrams, thus the bulletin cover.  In one circle is everything the world needs: thriving children, healthy water and forests and cities, beauty and the arts, good institutions, less pollution, cross-cultural understanding, transportation, health care…  This can end up being a very large circle.

In the other circle is what gives you personal deep gladness: Making music, developing technologies, creating wealth and meaningful work for others, research, writing, designing, teaching, connecting people.

Where those circles overlap is where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.  This is the place you’re called to be.  This is the place where you will feel most fulfilled.  It’s not a specific blue print.  It’s a moving target, a range of possibilities.  This is the place into which you are Called In.

Got it?  OK, because now I’m going to contradict that, or at least add another layer.

As lovely a picture this is, it’s quite different than many of the call stories we hear in scripture.  In both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the experience of call, rather than being practical, map-able, and glad-making, appears to be anything but.

The call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book is a case in point.

We don’t get a lot of context for this story, except that it happened in the year King Uzziah of Judah died.  This statement might be intended to get us thinking about transitional time, in-between times.  These unique spaces in the unfolding of life and history that are both unstable, and so fruitful for seeing the world in new ways and gaining new direction.  Or, saying “the year King Uzziah died” may just be a way of telling time.  Pegging events to the reign of rulers was common in the ancient world.

Either way, we’re soon plunged into a grand vision, seen by Isaiah and apparently no one else around him.  In this vision Yahweh is sitting on the temple throne, holding court, attended by heavenly creatures who repeat a proclamation of awe and wonder: “Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh.  Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh of hosts, the whole earth is full of Yahweh’s glory.”  The scene is complete with smoke and rattling.

Isaiah’s reaction is markedly not one of deep gladness.  Confronted with the overwhelming enormity of Divine presence, he is simultaneously confronted with his own smallness.  “Woe is me,” he says.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Isaiah’s calling will soon be revealed as using those very lips to speak to his people.  But like Sarai and Moses and Jeremiah and even Mary the mother of Jesus, Isaiah’s initial response is an immediate recognition of his own inadequacy for the task at hand.

Only after one of the heavenly beings takes a hot coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, is Isaiah able to utter his famous response: “Here am I, send me.”

His mistake is that he agrees to the calling before finding out what he’s actually going to be doing.  After getting a firm Yes, Yahweh reveals the task: “Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”  Yahweh lets Isaiah know that the mind of the people will be made even more dull by his words.  They will stop up their ears and shut their eyes, shut down all their senses to what he’s saying.

It’s as if Isaiah says, “I’m completely unprepared and unable to do this task.”  And Yahweh says, “That’s not a problem at all because you’re going to fail miserably.  Now hop to it.”

In the Bible, calling is never quite something you want to do.

And that’s what qualifies you to do it.  It’s a larger thing that is recruiting you, way larger than personal ego, which is one of the reasons ego reacts so strongly against it.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was putting up some resistance, yet ultimately yielding.

Frederick Buechner says: “The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And if we could modify Buechner and apply it to Isaiah, we might get something like: “The place you’re called to be is where what most terrifies you and what seems least likely to succeed meet.”

Try that venn diagram on for size.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Jessica Shimberg, now Rabbi Shimberg, recently ordained, leader of the Little Minyan Kehila which celebrates their high holy days in this sanctuary.  It was a different topic, but one thing Jessica said was that she felt like one of the key roles of spiritual leaders is to point toward the both/and rather than the either/or.  That sounds right to me.

So I will pass along that piece of rabbinical wisdom to you and suggest that being “Called in” is not a matter of either/or, but is a matter of both/and.

So maybe now we have a four circle venn diagram in which the place you are called to be is where your deep gladness and what most terrifies you and the world’s deep hunger and what is least likely to succeed…meet.  That certainly narrows it down.  Maybe just about everyone is called to be a pastor after all.

I’m not sure who first made the observation, but one of the great risks of the evolutionary advance of consciousness, is that it has produced creatures who have been freed from the confines of instinct.  And we are those creatures.  We have instinctual parts of our brains that can serve us very well for basic survival, but we also have the neurological apparatus to transcend instinct.  We ponder possibilities and alternative futures.  We contemplate the Divine and wonder what holds all this together and what our place might be in it all.

So while other creatures are largely guided by deeply ingrained patterns and genomic programming, we humans quite literally don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we’re doing.

We live with a freedom that can just as easily produce anxiety as it produces liberation, especially in our contemporary society which places so much emphasis on the self-made individual and less emphasis on inherited wisdom and the guide of tradition.

And so we have this notion of calling.  Healthy individuals, and healthy institutions, including congregations, pay attention to this.  This sense of being beckoned toward something which makes us and those around us more fully alive, more in tune with the larger work of this enormous reality we call God, whose glory fills the whole earth, even when we shut our eyes and ears to it.  Even if our initial reaction is one of fear.  Perhaps especially if our initial reaction is one of fear.

Calling is tricky because it’s always happening.  It’s a never finished project.  Jesus keeps saying “Follow me,” and doesn’t seem interested in standing still.  Like Jesus said to Nicodemus – those attuned to the Spirit are like the wind.  We’re never quite sure it’s going.

And speaking of an unfinished project, I want to continue this next week and look more at the calling of this congregation and what it has looked like over the last while to be part of a collective with a very clear calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  A calling that is clear, yet wide open, with many overlapping circles.



“Do you…?” “I do” | May 20

Texts: Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-8

The records don’t show who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews.  He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, was arrested, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces.

In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these Christian ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding.  He knew these things were so difficult and seemingly remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore.

But there he was, daring to speak.

And here we are, daring to once again enact this ancient rite of Christian baptism.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Bill P, even as we remember our own baptism and how it continues to shape us.  Or, if you have not been baptized, ponder whether baptism might be a part of your faith identity in the future.  Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this decision could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?!

It’s been a good to meet with Bill and his sponsor Jeff L over the last weeks.  It was Bill who made the connection between these baptismal vows and wedding vows.  Like, you’re pretty sure you want to be the kind of person the vows describe, but you actually have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.  But you know enough to take the step.  One of the effects of a good wedding is not just getting a couple married, but reminding everyone who witnesses it of their own deepest commitments.

For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included in the bulletin at the end of the worship liturgy.  They are based on traditional vows and come from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual – which is the secret society book you get when you graduate seminary, also available on  Some of the language of these vows has been slightly altered to better fit the faith expression of this congregation.    And so, as we anticipate baptism, as we remember our baptism, I’d like to walk through each of these vows and say a little bit about how each one speaks to a baptismal identity that we carry throughout our lives.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, and accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?

Baptism is a public way of saying Yes:  Yes to God, to the church, to life.  It’s a lot to say Yes to.  Each of these four baptismal questions that will be asked today are answered in the affirmative.  “Do you accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do.  “Do you believe…?” I do.  “Do you commit…?” I do.  “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.

This first one, however, highlights that in saying Yes to these things, we are also saying No to other things.  What we say No to, what we renounce, is what Christian tradition calls “the evil powers of this world,” or, more simply “sin.”

Sin certainly has a personal dimension to it.  I think the Call to Worship put it beautifully: “For all that we have done, and left undone, all those we have left behind, and left unloved.”  For this there is overwhelming, renewing grace and forgiveness.  Forgiveness from God, and also forgiveness that we extend to one another.

Mentioning “The evil powers of this world” widens the scope to bigger forces at work.  The book of Ephesians has some important things to say about these powers.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The enemy, this and other parts of the Christian Testament emphasizes, is not flesh and blood.  Another way of saying this is that ‘if it bleeds, it’s not the enemy.’  We all get caught up in these forces and powers to some degree, but people themselves are never the enemy.  Thus the radical call to love your human enemy.  In our time we have named many of these forces as the “isms.”  Racism, sexism and heterosexism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, individualism.  Bonhoeffer’s struggle was ultimately not against Nazis, but the Nazism that had consumed his people.

Where do these isms come from?  They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons alone.  Only the spiritual weapons of truth and peace and wholeness/salvation that Ephesians goes on to mention will overcome them.

It’s abstract, perhaps, but this vow starts to mess with you when, for example, you do an audit of your personal library and confirm that 90% of the books you’ve read in the last decade and a half were written by white authors, most of those straight men.  And you realize you need to repent of seeing the world through such a narrow lens.  Not that this has anything to do with anything I did a couple years ago.  Just a random, hypothetical example.

Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, who showed us the way of peace; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?

Genesis 1:27 says that humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God.  It’s been said that very soon after, humanity returned the favor and created god in our image.

As soon as we start talking about God, or saying that we believe in God, we are instantly in danger of reducing God to our own limited imagination.  Even to speak the name, to try and contain the ultimate within the confines of language, is itself a dangerous act.  It is far too easy to turn God into an extension of our own ego, our own small wishes about Reality, rather than submitting our wishes to what is ultimately Real.

This is why the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart writes, “I pray God to free me from God.”

Anne Lamott has written that as soon as it turns out God dislikes all the same people that you dislike, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve created God in your own image.

And so, to say “I believe in God,” rather than being an act of grasping on to certainty, is an act of letting go.  I believe in that which cannot be named or contained.  This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.

Part of the discussion with Bill and Jeff centered on what we say about Jesus – the one “who showed us the way of peace.”  The language of “personal Lord and Savior” is not in these baptismal vows, partly because it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.  When the early Christians used the language of Lord and Savior for Jesus, they were appropriating it from Caesar, who was hailed as both Lord and Savior of the world.  To claim the Jesus way is to claim the one who showed us the way of peace.  An entirely different way of being Lord and Savior of the world.  A different kind of power.

Mention of the Holy Spirit identifies us with the same life and power that birthed the early church in Acts chapter two.

Do you commit to a life of spiritual growth; studying the Scriptures, prayer, loving your enemies, and listening for God?

One of the things we’re now aware of is that we can only see a small percentage of light waves.  We are constantly bombarded with waves of light like radio waves and ultraviolet waves, but we have only developed the kinds of bodily sensitivities to perceive that little range of light in the visible spectrum.

It’s a good analogy for the life of the spirit.  To be committed to a life of spiritual growth is to have faith that, as poet Gerald Manly Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Yet we perceive so little of it, allow such a small percentage of it into our consciousness.  The prophet Elijah, on top of Mt. Horeb, experienced this range of the previously unknown utterances of God as the still small voice or, as one translation puts it, the sound of sheer silence.

How does that register?  Can we hear that?

The Gospel stories of the many healings of the deaf and the blind speak not only to physical healing, but to spiritual perception that Jesus brought to those around him.

And so, in order to see and hear, we have what we refer to as spiritual disciplines.  Habits and practices which attune our spirits to the Spirit of God.  This question mentions a few of these: Prayer, studying the Scriptures, loving your enemies, and listening for God.  To these we could also add serving the poor, practicing hospitality, visiting the sick and those who are in prison, shared meals, loving your neighbor, loving God with all your mind, practicing silence.  These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices.  Like the walkers to Emmaus, Christ by their side the whole time, but unrecognized until they extended the act of hospitality, the shared meal, the breaking of the bread.  So we can commit to a life of spiritual growth, and in doing so, fling our senses wide open to all of the undiscovered wavelengths of God’s presence among us.

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?  Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church, that God’s beloved community of healing and justice come on earth as it is in heaven?

The spiritual life, living in a baptismal identity, is not meant to be done in isolation.  You are a part of community.  Not only this local expression of the church.  The worldwide fellowship of sisters and brothers which transcends national boundaries.  And not only extending out spatially around the globe in this way, but extending through time.  We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meister Eckhart, Mary Magdalene, Sara and Abraham.  Anne Lamott – who would laugh to hear her name included, which is exactly what qualifies her.

Your gifts are valuable.  We need your gifts.  The world needs your gifts, your love, your devotion to doing justice.  Dare we even say that God needs your life to carry out whatever larger purpose there is in store for you.

And a baptismal identity calls on one to call on the church to live up to its highest calling.  Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pilgrimage spirit, then you will become disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned.  And when this happens, remember your baptism, remember who you are, remember who we have all been called to be, and help lead the way.  Help us remember what we’ve forgotten, and to see when we’ve become blind.

Critical yeast | May 6

Texts: Acts 10:44-48, Matthew 13:33

For today’s focus I’d like to borrow an idea, a phrase, from John Paul Lederach.  If you haven’t heard of John Paul Lederach, let me build up his credentials a bit to show why it’s worth listening to his ideas.

John Paul is an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.  While immersed in the work, he came to see the limitations of the framework of confliction resolution, proposing instead a larger framework of conflict transformation.  That shift itself has been widely influential in the field.  He has worked extensively in Nicaragua, Colombia, Nepal, and the Middle East.  He has sat at the table with militias and gangs, impoverished rural women, and high ranking officials.  Rather than treat conflict as a set of presenting issues and problems, he has developed methods of drawing out the stories of those involved to get at what they want, and what they need.  He tells organizations and foundations investing in peace they should think in terms of decades rather than short term projects whose immediate results are more easily measured but whose long term effects may be minimal.  He’s a professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and has taught many years at Eastern Mennonite University.  He is a Mennonite, still living, in his early 60’s.  He’s written over 20 books, but consistently credits the people he works with, often without formal education, as the innovators of peace.

You actually can’t learn a whole lot about John Paul through Wikipedia.  My theory on this is that many people probably write their own Wikipedia page, and he’s too busy or humble to write much of an entry about himself.  Just a theory.

An excellent introduction to John Paul Lederach is this 2012 interview with Krista Tippet titled “The Art of Peace.”

OK, so now that I’ve built this guy up, this better be really good.  The phrase I’d like to borrow from John Paul has to do with his observation about how change happens – how substantive positive transformation takes place.

John Paul says that social movements are often spoken of in terms of critical mass.  You build a movement and communicate a message that energizes and gathers enough people, and at some point you tip the scales.  Without diminishing the importance of critical mass, John Paul says he’s come to think of change as involving “critical yeast,” meaning a smaller number of people who hold a certain quality of relationship within a group or a system or an institution.  A certain quality of relationship that ultimately alters the functioning of the whole.  Like the way a small amount of yeast is distributed through flour to make the whole dough rise.  He’s observed this happening time and time again.  Critical yeast.

So that’s what the sermon title is about.  It’s not critical yeast like yeast that’s critical of other yeast for not eating their share of glucose.  It’s critical yeast as an idea to be understood in conversation with critical mass.

This phrase might be original to John Paul Lederach, but it’s an old idea.  There’s that wonderful concise parable of Jesus in Matthew 13:33:  “The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  When you picture three measures of flour, don’t picture three cups of flour, the exact amount we use to make our household favorite long rise, no knead, bread recipe.  Three measures of flour, one seah times three, was about 50 lbs.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  So picture this woman, white powder everywhere, large bowls all around, mixing up a feast for a multitude.  There’s way less yeast in the dough than flour, but it gets distributed throughout, and transforms the loaves.  The kin-dom of heaven works this way, Jesus says.

It fits alongside other parables of Jesus where small things, or seemingly insignificant people, exude a certain quality of relationship.  Like the tiny mustard seed that grows to become a living refuge for birds.  Or small crystals of salt that flavor and preserve: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his followers.  Or the widow with no social standing, no economic or political power, who keeps petitioning the no –good judge to grant her justice, eventually wearing the judge down.  The judge declares, and I quote from the parable in Luke, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

These are not stories of critical mass, but critical yeast.  Here, transformation does not depend on an overwhelming quantity of something, but a certain quality of presence.

This is perhaps a counter-intuitive message to be preaching on the eve of the BREAD Nehemiah Action.  The Nehemiah Action is our largest gathering of the year where we are absolutely focused on getting a critical mass of people of faith and goodwill to fill the Celeste Center.  We want to demonstrate to our public officials how vitally important these issues are to us.  If you’re only involved in the work of BREAD one day a year, tomorrow is the day.  The lofty aspirational goal of our 40+ congregations is to each turn out our average weekend worship attendance.  There are 52 Sundays in a year to show up for worship, and one day a year we can all show up together to do justice.

Thus the chant 52 – 1.  52 -1.

Our Annual Report, completed just a few weeks ago, notes that our average Sunday attendance for the last year was 181, so we are making the modest goal, which would still be a record for us, to turn out 100 people tomorrow to have a strong CMC showing for doing justice in Franklin County with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.  Imagine 3000 people of all ages – Baptists, Unitarian-Universalist, Reformed and Conservative Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonite, and other, gathering en masse, one team, cheering on the side of affordable housing, restorative practices in our schools, living wage jobs, and a Municipal ID for homeless and undocumented folks among us.

That widow petitioning the judge could get what she needs a lot faster if she’s got people standing in solidarity with her.

Join the critical mass, even if you’re slightly critical of all the methods BREAD has used in the past.

The Nehemiah Action is a critical part of the work of BREAD.  But it only happens once a year.  When the event is done we’ll each drive home, back to our different neighborhoods throughout Franklin County.  The critical mass will make the evening news, but it will be the critical yeast that continues its work throughout the rest of the year.

There’s something freeing about critical mass not being the only factor needed to tip the scales, shift the conversation, change the culture.  I think about this with our Sanctuary work.  As of now there are only about 40 public sanctuary cases around the country.  That’s a very small percentage of people facing deportation and separation from family who are in sanctuary.  It’s a very small percentage of congregations that exist in the whole country who are providing sanctuary.  We do not have a critical mass.  But I wonder how all of this is working as critical yeast.  I wonder how the relatively small presence of sanctuary within the wider system is leavening the whole loaf, creating a certain quality of relationship based around neighborliness and solidarity.  Thinking in terms of decades rather than weeks and months, I wonder what is slowly rising in the dough.

More broadly, all of us, each one here, is a part of the critical yeast of the kin-dom of heaven, no matter where we’re distributed among the loaf.  How about this as a thought experiment: Think about where each of us might be say on a Tuesday afternoon, and imagine each dot on the map as a bit of yeast in the dough.

On a more personal level, I’m guessing we can all identify one relatively small presence in our life – a mentor, a teacher, a book, even just a stray phrase we pick up along the way – that has served as yeast for us.  These people and ideas get sprinkled into our lives, and it’s the quality of their presence, not just the quantity, that does its work over time.  There’s likely a book or two waiting to be written about the critical yeast method of parenting and grand-parenting.

This is one of the ways the kin-dom of heaven does its thing.  It tends to take an unpredictable course.  This was the experience of Peter in the book of Acts who, through a series of events not of his own making, found himself in the home of Gentiles.  With his world neatly divided into the tired old categories of “Us” and “Not us,” Peter was suddenly face to face with “Not us,” a group of Gentiles.  And, much to his surprise, the same Spirit of life and liberation he had experienced through Jesus shows up among these Gentiles.  The yeast jumps loaves, does the same thing in different mixing bowls, causing Peter and the early church to ponder the unfathomable reality that maybe there’s just one big loaf, with the same yeasty Spirit spread throughout.  This is the good news that consumed the early apostles, the good news we still remember when we share from the one loaf of Communion.

I want to draw this together by ending with a collective meditation.  A gratitude prayer of sorts.  So you can get yourself positioned in whatever way works best for you to do that sort of thing, eyes open or closed.  We’ll start with the inward journey dimension and work our way out.

So first of all, let’s call to mind the people who have served as critical yeast in our own lives.  Those people who’ve had a certain quality of presence.  Maybe just a brief appearance, maybe a consistent presence, but people through whom the Spirit has lodged itself in our lives.

And now let’s recognize that we play that role in the lives of others.  Let’s call to mind the people we especially hold dear who could perhaps use some critical yeast that we have to share.  And we’ll do this and the other parts silently.

Let’s imagine this in our interpersonal relationships, and in the organizations and institutions where we give our energy.  This work is not an additional burden, but a gift of the Spirit given through us.  Places where, through the grace of God, we might be that critical yeast.

Let’s also call to mind those people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, who are critical yeast in their communities, in their neighborhoods.  The kind of folks John Paul Lederarch works with.    Folks doing the slow work of peace.  Folks who cross language barriers, folks who get others to sign petitions, folks who administer care in whatever form.  People in positions of power and people with no formal power.  Peacemakers in troubled parts of the world, including our own.  We give thanks for these folks, and pray for strength and courage for them.

Let’s move another concentric circle out and imagine our congregation and other congregations around the county and country and globe as critical yeast in this one big loaf of a world that God loves so dearly.  All the small ways the kin-dom of God bubbles up through these communities.  Our prayer is that we continue to develop the quality of relationship with God and one another that keeps us vital.

And finally, let’s imagine critical yeast coming together with critical mass, for events like tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.  When we join and concentrate our energy in a show of people power.  Critical yeast plus critical mass, so that the Spirit of life and liberation, the Spirit of love of justice might do unexpected things among us, so that the kin-dom of this earth might look a little more like the kin-dom of heaven.  This is our hope, this is our prayer, this is our faith in action.  Amen.

Pilgrimage | April 29

Text: Acts 8:26-40


This is a story about pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage is different than a trip, or a vacation.  It’s different than tourism or site seeing.  The difference is mostly in how one approaches the journey.

TS Elliot wrote about pilgrimage toward the end of one of his long poems.

With the drawing of this Love (capital L) and the voice of this Calling (capital C)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.   (Little Gidding, V)

To say “we”, “We shall not cease from exploration,” is to make this a common thing.  This is not the calling of a select few.  Pilgrimage is not just for the spiritual athletes among us, or the overly religious.

In the Canterbury Tales it’s not just the Nun and the Monk making the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  It’s also the Merchant and the Physician, the Knight and the Cook, the Wife of Bath.

This is a human thing.  We’re explorers.  And when we explore well, we arrive back where we started, and know the place for the first time.  Which is to say that we know ourselves, we know God, in a deeper and truer way for having taken the journey.

This story in Acts chapter 8 is about one particular pilgrim, and an encounter he has along the way with Philip, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus.

We find out what the author wants us to know about this person within the span of a single verse: “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home” (Acts 8:27).

This is our pilgrim.

The label “Ethiopian” had a fairly broad scope.  It referred to anyone with dark skin, especially people south of Egypt, a black African.  Ancient writers from the Mediterranean world often wrote about these peoples favorably, known for their dignity and handsome appearance.

Contemporary African American theologians point back to this black man – who is eventually baptized by Philip – as an indication that Christianity is not merely the religion of white slave owners.  Long before white Europeans colonized North America and enslaved Africans, many of whose descendants became Christian…long before this, Christianity was thriving as an African religion in Africa, partly through the message this African man carried back to his people.  And so, they note, when enslaved persons claimed Jesus as their own, it was not a submission to the religion of their oppressors.  It can be seen as a re-claiming of something which had, over the centuries, become indigenous to parts of the African continent.

To say this pilgrim is Ethiopian is also to say that he is from far, far away.  We are told he served as a court official for the Candace, the queen, and we know where that capital city was, and we know it was about 1500 miles from Jerusalem – one way.  From Columbus Ohio to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This is not a pilgrimage one would take on a whim or every spring or fall.  It was perhaps a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.  If Jerusalem is the center of your world, as it was for the New Testament writers, this pilgrim is from the far periphery.

To say that he was a “eunuch” is to say something about his sexuality.  In various cultures of the ancient world males who served in courts were castrated.  This prevented them from being sexual rivals with their male superiors.  Eunuchs were highly valued as loyal and trustworthy servants, serving in some of the most intimate aspects of a ruler’s life – personal grooming, a bedchamber attendant.

This would have complicated matters for our pilgrim headed to the Jerusalem temple.  The Torah had something to say about people like him.  Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  Last week Eliza noted that Psalm 23 was one of those scriptures her Sunday school teacher had them memorize even if they didn’t know why at the time.  I’m guessing very few Sunday school teachers put Deuteronomy 23 on the memorization list, although it might be one thing from church kids would indeed remember the rest of their lives.

But eunuch didn’t always mean castration or mutilation.  With “man” as the standard for what it meant to be a vital human, eunuchs were often referred to as “unmanned” because they no longer, or perhaps never had, conformed to gender expectations.    In some cases, one might also be deemed a eunuch if it was determined that one did not naturally respond sexually to women.  Our names for this have been homosexual or gay or queer.

Jesus likely makes reference to this in Matthew 19:12 in the context of why a man might choose to not marry a woman.  He says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth – there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

In these words about why someone might not enter traditional marriage, Jesus makes space for three very different kinds of “eunuchs.”  In reverse order: There are people who choose eunuch-hood, celibacy, or singleness, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, freed from the bonds of marriage in order to carry out the work of God they are called to do.  There are eunuchs made that way by others, by castration or mutilation.  And there are “baby I was born this way” eunuchs.

“Let anyone accept this who can,” Jesus says.

Just as black theologians have delved into this pilgrim’s blackness, so queer theologians have delved into the breadth of meaning of eunuch – this fluid term that can more broadly mean someone outside the gender and sexual norms of male heterosexuality.

And so it is that one of the earliest encounters a disciple of Jesus has after Jesus is gone is with a queer, black unmanned man who may just as much have converted Philip as been converted by him.  Philip, too, was on a pilgrimage to discover how gloriously wide and wondrous is the creativity of God, the love of Christ.

Lest we think this Ethiopian eunuch pilgrim is a completely marginal person, geographically, and sexually, we are next told that he’s in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians.  He is a person of great power and access to wealth.  He would have had many others under his command, a full staff, surrounded by advisors to help inform his decisions.  He’s traveling this great distance in a chariot, no doubt with a full entourage.  He had charge of the entire treasury.  He held the trust of his ruler and his people.  Unlike most people of his day, he is well educated and versed in world literature.  He can read.  When Philip meets him he’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.  He had just put down his copy of TS Elliot:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This traveler is not on a vacation, and not merely on a trip or site seeing.  He is on a pilgrimage.  He has removed himself from his usual surroundings in order to go on a great journey to the land of the Jewish Temple – even though he was barred from certain parts of it because of who he was.  The draw was still to encounter the holy.  To explore that which is beyond himself, and to know the expanse of it all the more.

He is one of hundreds, millions, now billions of pilgrims.  And he is not easily classified as this kind of pilgrim or that kind of pilgrim.  He is a person of privilege.  He is a person from the margins.  He has power in a hierarchy.  He has been “unmanned” or was never oriented toward the narrow confines of traditional manliness.  He has a clearly defined role in society.  He is fluid and moves outside of strictly defined categories of gender and geography.  He is an explorer.  He is a swirl of identities, ultimately beyond categorization, not reducible to titles or roles.  He is a human being, and a pilgrim.

If you ever want to do a fascinating study you can read Acts chapter 8 alongside chapter 17 of the Autobiography of Malcolm X titled “Mecca” – the pilgrimage of the Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary to Jerusalem in the first century, and the pilgrimage of the black American Muslim leader to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the 20th century.  I had a good chunk I wanted to say about that, but it started to feel like an entirely different sermon.  Maybe when this passage roles around in the lectionary again in three years.

If you’ve ever been far from home for whatever reason you know the feeling of both openness and vulnerability we feel in these circumstances.  We are removed from the routines of our familiar surroundings. The answers no longer live in the well worn pathways of our neurological circuitry.  Because of this we can become more intensely aware, more curious, more disoriented.

One of my favorite family vacation memories from childhood is when we got lost in Harlem…driving in our large baby blue station wagon pulling a pop up camper.  We did emerge, eventually, with an extremely clean windshield.  Multiple times us kids watched in amazement as someone would come from the sidewalk toward our car, voluntarily wash our windshield while we were locked in traffic, behind a red light, then wait patiently by the window.  Fortunately, my dad knew this meant they expected some payment, which he always did.  It was disorienting, and wonderfully re-orienting to a world larger than rural Ohio.  It turned at least that part of the vacation into a pilgrimage.

The grand archetypal pilgrimages point us toward the small pilgrimages that come much more frequently.  For a pilgrimage to count as a pilgrimage it need not be to one of the historic holy sites – Jerusalem, Mecca, Canterbury.  Pilgrimage is a way of going about life.    The difference is in how one approaches the journey.  On the pilgrimage one is especially open to the messages one encounters along the way.  Usually these encounters weren’t on the itinerary.  Philip comes alongside you to interpret the scripture and tell you good news.  Fellow hajis to Mecca show you brotherhood and sisterhood in a way you never previously imagined possible.  Strangers come and wash your windshield and help you see the world more clearly, even if you’re still lost.

Pilgrimage is for everyone, and if you don’t take it yourself, it may come and find you.

One of the surest things of life is that we will make many journeys into unknown places.  The question is whether it will be merely a trip or whether it will be a pilgrimage.

One of the joys of congregational life is that we see these pilgrimages happening all around us, and we’re enriched by them.

To those who have made the pilgrimage of coming out to themselves and their family and friends and the world: we are honored to know you and grateful for how you have expanded our world.

To those in stages of life ahead of us, making pilgrimage through adulthood as a single or married person, the pilgrimage with infertility or into parenthood and the empty nest that follows, into retirement, caring for aging parents, and the loss of various personal abilities: your stories help us see that the road can be traveled with grace.

To those making pilgrimage through the dark valley of cancer, or through divorce – loss of a hoped for future, we sit with your grief and share the simple joys that become all the more precious.

To all of us making pilgrimage through a highly racialized society with deep and lingering injustices, may we travel with courage and determination.

The gift of pilgrimage is that is offers a baptism.  Under the waters of this baptism all of our swirling identities find their rest and home in the ultimate identity of being a child of God.  Beloved to the core.  A bearer of the Divine image.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time.


Things to keep open: doors, scriptures, minds | April 15   


Text: Luke 24:36-49

Around this time of year about a decade ago, Abbie and I and little Eve and even littler Lily were waiting, hopefully, for thousands of small openings in the soil of our backyard.  We had just bought a house in Cincinnati that winter.  The house fit our needs just fine, but the backyard needed some love.  The previous September, during the windstorms of Hurricane Ike, before we owned the house, a massive silver maple from our yard had fallen across several properties.  Many of the branches and cut up pieces of trunk were returned to the yard we’d purchased.

Also the family who lived there before us had a large playset roughly the size of a McDonalds play land.  It had taken up a good chunk of yard.  A neighbor later told us they were pretty sure it actually was a used McDonalds play land set.  It was gone, but its large footprint was grassless.

We cut, chopped and stacked the silver maple, and rototilled the yard that wasn’t actually a yard to loosen up the soil.  We spread grass seed, threw out some straw covering, and welcomed the rain that soon came.  Moisture and warmth from the sun was all it took to open up all those small seeds.  With some assistance from us, nature did its thing enabling the seeds to open: to shoot down into the ground with some roots and up into the air toward the sun.  Those thousands of openings provided a turf for playing for the following years.

From Easter to Pentecost, the season we’re in now, a similar kind of opening is happening for the disciples.  The risen Jesus has this limited time to open his followers to a new reality.  To crack the shell of their fear.  To put them in a position where they can take firm root and thrive and grow.  The process of being cracked open is not an easy one for the disciples to undergo.  It is met with skepticism and disbelief.

In the story from Luke, Jesus’ appearance to the disciples the evening of the resurrection, we can note three different openings taking place.  So let’s consider each of these:

Open Doors. 

Luke doesn’t emphasize this as much as John, but if we take John’s version into account we are told that the disciples’ initial encounter with the risen Christ happens behind closed doors, or, locked doors to be more precise.  With the public execution of their leader only two days in the past, they’d found a relatively safe place to huddle so they wouldn’t be found out as members of the Jesus movement.  But then, at some point in their huddling, Jesus came and stood among them.  Luke and John do agree on Jesus’ initial words to them.  “Peace be with you.”  They also agree on the theme of Jesus’ message – The Spirit of God will come to you, and you’re going to open wide these doors and start doing my work everywhere you happen to be, even in the far corners of the world.

It’s quite a shift.  Quite a change from closing the doors.

Living with the doors open means the disciples will encounter people and situations they couldn’t anticipate.  Like Peter and John who, on their way to the temple, cross paths with a man who can’t walk.  Or Phillip who, while on the road, had a run-in with the treasury secretary of Ethiopia, the eunuch who was on his way to Jerusalem to worship.  Or later when Peter starts walking through the open doors of Gentile homes, and discovering that the Spirit shows up in all sorts of off the map kinds of places.  In the power of the Spirit the disciples go from being closers and lockers of doors, to being door openers.

I have to interject here that there are many good reasons for closed doors.  One of the great reliefs of spring is that I can let up on my vigilance of reminding people in our household significantly younger than me to shut the door when they’re coming and going.  So simple yet so rarely done.  I also have this thing with keeping bedroom doors closed at night.  I have difficulty falling asleep if our bedroom door isn’t closed.  Like I need the cocoon fully sealed shut.  Where it borders on slightly pathological is that I also don’t like it if the girls’ bedroom doors are open, so on my final evening rounds, that’s on the checklist.  There’s some kind of peace of mind when everyone is sealed up temporarily in their own cocoon.  My theory to explain away the pathology is that it’s only when we take care to have some closed door time that we can joyfully engage in open door time.

But most of our days are most likely spent behind closed doors.  Doors at home, doors at work, and doors on the cars that transport us from home to work.  Part of our calling is to find ways to make closed doors open.  When we welcome people into our home, or into our office, or into our church building, there is a sense in which we are welcoming Christ.  All who pass through the door make the place holy ground.  We break bread together, we share thoughts and stories.  We collaborate on projects.  We welcome in those we love and those who are difficult to love, and those we barely know.  The book of Hebrews picks up on this theme.  It says, “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  The experience of the risen Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit had the effect of enabling the disciples to recognize that everyone who crossed their path was in some way a piece God.

Keeping the door open gives us less control over who or what may come across our paths.  Open doors enable Christ to wander in and say, “Peace be with you.”

Open Scriptures

Luke 24:45 says “Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  In this case, scriptures means the Hebrew Scriptures, what we sometimes call the Old Testament.  The Law, the prophets, and the Psalms and Writings.  Something recorded by previous generations about their encounter with God that the disciples had available to them.  Tellling about creation, covenants, teachings, sayings of wisdom, praising and lamenting.  Expressing longings for justice.  Telling the story of the people of Israel who move from slavery to wilderness to promised land, through judges and kings and wars and prophets and exile and return.

All of this, Jesus opens up to them.  They already know what it says.  Have heard the stories from their youth.  Perhaps memorized whole chunks of passages as was more common in oral cultures.  They already were plenty familiar with these scriptures.  But with Jesus in the room, this time, they see scripture as if for the first time.

What is going on here is just as instructive for us as it was for the disciples.  What is being offered is a particular way of reading scripture and the tradition we have inherited – of reading history.  For the disciples, over however long a stretch of time it took to sink in, the suffering Christ, the one who identified with the least of these, the dying and rising Christ for whom death was not the end, becomes the primary narrative of every narrative.  The life of Jesus becomes the primary way of reading every other life, every part of scripture.  In other words, we read everything from now on as if Jesus is in the room.

The “New” Testament reads everything as if he had always been in the room.  Christ was in the room at creation, the word that was to become flesh, as John’s gospel says.  He was in the room when Abram and Sarai were promised that their offspring would become a blessing to all nations.  He was in the room when Jeremiah spoke about a new covenant that God would write on the people’s hearts.  He was in the room when Isaiah spoke about the servant of the Lord who was anointed to preach good news to the poor.  And this presence then and now effects how we see things.

The lowly and weak of each story turn out to have much more in common with Christ than the mighty and powerful.  Certain codes and laws that served to separate the righteous from the unrighteous turn out to be less important.  Acts of kindness and compassion turn out to be signs of good news, even if they happen through people and places formerly considered outsiders and outside.

We have come to call this a Christo-centric reading of Scripture.  Christ becomes the organizing principle through which all teachings are interpreted.

And so if Jesus is in the room, it affects how we interpret our culture.  How we read the events going on around us.  Open Scriptures means the story is still being written.

Open Minds

In some ways, talking about open minds is a little redundant after talking about open doors and open scriptures.  Luke does pair open minds and open scriptures together when he says that “Jesus opened their minds to understand the scripture.”  It might be something like the proverbial chicken and the egg question – which comes first?  The open door or the open mind?  The open mind or the open scriptures?  By the way, there were eggs long before there were chickens.  So the egg came first.  But, the first chicken was a slight mutation from an egg laid by a non-chicken, so a chicken at least came before chicken eggs.  But this is a different conversation.

It could be the case that the open mind comes first, and leads us toward open doors and open scriptures.  Having an open mind is a fairly common phrase that we’ve tossed around for a while.  And a lot of people seem to agree it’s a good kind of mind to have.  Open-mindedness may be enough of a catch-all term that we don’t put a lot of thought into what it actually requires to have an open mind.  Has open mindedness been reduced to just mean liberal?  Can one be an open-minded conservative?  Something even this basic gets politicized.  Hopefully an open mind can mean something beyond ideology.  Beyond where we come down on any particular political or theological issue.

Having an open mind could be another way of saying that we are listening.  We are listening, and we’re willing to take in new ideas.  And we’re willing to take in old ideas.  There’s room to allow all those things inside of us.  The boundary between where I end, and not-I begins is an open boundary.  We keep a particular identity, and certain core convictions, but we recognize our identity to be fluid.  To be incomplete.  To be needing more.

It could also be the case that open doors and open scriptures come first, and only then can the mind really open.  I like the way this works because it means that our actions and relationships shape our thoughts.  Rather than thinking our way to right action, we act our way to right thinking.  We keep our doors open, we allow Christ to open the scriptures to us, and this shapes our thinking.  The people we encounter, the ways we discover Christ present around us, open up new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing the world.  We have to deal with unexpected relationships, unanticipated life decisions.  Our minds must adapt, be flexible.  We must listen.

In this season of spring and Easter resurrection we look for the ways that we are being opened up.  Cracked open, growing, receiving the Spirit of God.

Open doors.  Open Scriptures.  Open minds.


Sabbath from Violence | Palm Sunday | March 25

Texts: Leviticus 25:1-7; John 12:12-33


There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death.  The piece of street theater we refer to as the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week of intense confrontation between Jesus and the religious and political authorities.  It’s a tension that had been building throughout Jesus’ public life.

There were times Jesus had proven to be more strict than the most stringent interpreters of Scripture.  Like arguing that not only should the people obey the commandment “Do not murder,” but that whoever holds resentment in their heart toward another person is in the same category as a murderer.  At other times Jesus made proclamations as radical and liberating as any freedom fighter before or after him.  Like when he stood up in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth and declared that, like Isaiah, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to grant release for captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  The year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee: when debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and wealth that had accumulated into the hands of the few was redistributed among the people.

Jesus called into his inner circle tax collectors who had made their fortunes collaborating with the Roman Empire, benefitting off the military occupation of their own kin.  And people like Simon the Zealot, who had been a part of a revolutionary band conspiring to violently overthrow Roman control of Judea.

In a highly patriarchal honor/shame culture, Jesus touched and restored to community a bleeding woman.  He engaged in face to face conversation with a foreign woman as an intellectual equal around a well in Samaria.  Jesus drew much of his financial support from a group of female disciples.  He publicly defended a woman who poured out a year’s wages worth of expensive oil on his feet, and wiped it with her hair.

Jesus railed against the Pharisees, but also ate in their homes.  He drew crowds of poor peasants, and rich young rulers.

At times he made the bar of being his disciple as low as the simple invitation to “Come, follow me.”  At other times he made it agonizingly high, like when he replied to a would be disciple who wished to return home upon the death of his father for the lengthy grieving rituals.  Jesus’ reply: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”

Whatever kind of easy going buddy-Jesus type image a certain brand of American Christianity has created in the last while quickly disappears with even a skim of the gospel material.  If we manage to read through the gospels without in some way being offended by something Jesus says or does we likely aren’t paying attention.

His mission was not to offend, or scandalize for the sake of scandal.  His mission, which he perhaps fully came to terms with during those 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism after which these days of Lent are patterned.  His mission was to bring good news.  Good news.  To proclaim that the reign of God was at hand, pressing in on historical time, making itself known in the present moment through him and those who follow in his way.

But what is good, freeing, liberating news for some, is threatening news for others.  Specifically, for those who uphold and benefit from the current moral and political power arrangements.  It is unsettling news for those who hold a monopoly on the sacred, the gatekeepers of who is considered blessed and who is is considered cursed.  And those who are accustomed to receiving unquestioned allegiance.

It was with these folks and systems Jesus tangled and tangoed during the final week of his life.  A week which ends in his crucifixion at the hands of Rome.  This was an especially cruel form of public torture reserved for slaves and enemies of the state.  Crucifixion was strategic in its horror.  It was intended to have the same effect as shock and awe modern warfare.  To be so overwhelmingly awful as to deter those who saw it from ever doing anything that might put them in similar danger.  The unwritten but clearly communicated sign attached to every one of the 1000s of people Rome crucified was “Don’t let this happen to you.”

There’s no way around the violence of Jesus’ death.

This winter I found myself in a bit of a jam while visiting with the elementary school aged Sunday school classes.  Christian Ed Commission asked me to speak with our young people about rituals in the church like Communion and Baptism and Coming of Age, and to talk about the liturgical calendar.  That’s where we started.  Advent and Christmas went pretty much as anticipated, with a nice mix of incarnational theology and kids wanting to talk about their favorite Christmas presents.  When we got around to Lent and Easter, kids of different ages had a similar question.  They wanted to know about Jesus’ death.  More specifically, they wanted to know how he died, down to the details of where exactly the nails went through the body.  They were curious.  And while they knew the basic story, I guess they figured since the pastor was in the room this was their chance to get the inside scoop on what really went down.

And I found myself hesitating with what to say.  What to say about the crucifixion of Jesus to children?  I wondered if this was somewhat equivalent to taking these kids into an R rated movie without parental consent.  On the other, they wanted to know more about this Jesus person we talk so much about, and they deserved more than a vague answer.

So we talked about crucifixion.  I tried to answer the questions they had, without giving details they didn’t ask for.  We wondered together about why some people would want to do that to Jesus, and what it would have been like to be Jesus’s friend as this was happening.  We talked about how this was one of the most powerful things that could have been done against Jesus, but how the kind of power he had was greater even than this, even than death.  We got a little side tracked on the difference between resurrection and zombies, steering towards how we believe that even though we don’t see Jesus’ body anymore, that Jesus is alive through our bodies and somehow we together form one big body that does the kinds of things Jesus did.

Doing theology with kids is much more challenging than adults because they don’t nod their heads in polite agreement if they have no idea what you’re talking about.  Which makes one wonder whether one actually knows what one is talking about.

So what are we talking about?

In our cycle through the liturgical calendar we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the first day of a week to which the gospels commit so much text.

And what we’re talking about, at least in part, is why out of all the thousands of people that Rome crucified, why it’s Jesus’ crucifixion we talk about most.  Why it ended up becoming a symbol of a whole movement that continues to this day, of which we are a part.

Each gospel has its own way of telling the story, but one thing they hold in common is the repeated reminder that the disciples didn’t know what any of this meant while it was happening.  This doesn’t mean they were particularly dense.  It means they were very much like us, immersed in the events of the day, uncertain of what they meant, if anything, in the bigger picture.  It means they experienced the events surrounding Jesus’ death very much like anyone who would experience the death of someone they loved dearly, the fear and grief compounded by the public violence against this one for whom they had given up so much to follow.

John’s gospel interjects that note about the disciples’ lack of understanding right after that palm processional by which Jesus entered Jerusalem.  John writes: “His disciples did not understand these things at first.”

Jesus had entered Jerusalem the way Roman governors entered it during the major Jewish festivals.  Mounted on the back of a horse trained for war, Roman governors entered cities with the kind of public fanfare intended to remind people of who was in charge.  Hovering thick in the air along the processional route was the threat of violence toward those who disturbed the peace of Rome.

The disciples likely at least understood that Jesus’ method of entry was a counterpoint to this.  Perhaps a kind of mock parade in the spirit of street theater.  The alternative off broadway processional on the other side of town. The one without the parade permit.  Complete with props and chants.  A processional with a different message, evoking the Hebrew scriptures which proclaimed that the king of Yahweh’s choosing would come on a young donkey.  Hovering thick in the air along that processional route was the spirit of peaceableness.

Maybe the disciples got at least this much.  But what follows seems to have been impossible to see while it was happening.  For good reason.  It’s still hard to see.

The gospels were written decades after the fact, so it’s difficult to sort out the events themselves from the emerging interpretation of those events embedded in the storytelling.  In John’s gospel we soon hear from Jesus himself, who sensed the inevitability of his own death.  Referring to his crucifixion, Jesus says “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).

It’s a remarkable thing to consider.  What appears in the moment to be a judgement against an individual, resulting in his death, Jesus proposes is actually a judgement against the whole system that conspires to inflict the violence of the cross.  When he says “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out” he uses the same phrase as driving out demons.  In other words, Jesus proposes, to those with ears to hear, that his crucifixion should be seen as an exorcism of global scale, to drive out the ruler of this world.

The demonic ruler being drive out wasn’t Pilate or Caesar or any particular human being.  Anyone could be plugged into their role to keep the whole machine chugging along.  The ruler of the world was the overarching power that seemed to hold the whole world together, that threat of violence hovering thick in the air over Jerusalem, and over human history.

The cross of Christ is a public exorcism of violence, which has now been driven out of this world, which frees us to live under a different power entirely, defined by peaceableness, fierce love, and neighborliness which knows no borders.  The cross means no more crosses.

At least that’s how the disciples came to understand it in retrospect.  That’s the foolishness of the Christian confession of faith.  There are so few visible signs that this was a successful exorcism.  And yet that’s what we foolishly believe.

We’ve been talking about Sabbath throughout Lent.  Sabbath as a day, Sabbath as a year.  Sabbath for God and humanity.  Sabbath for land and animals. Sabbath as a verb that means to cease.

What we’re saying now is that we have been liberated from the spirit of violence and are invited into a permanent Sabbath from violence.  Violence as visible and public as every cross and crucifixion we continue to inflict.  And violence as hidden and personal as the wounds we all carry.

Maybe this Sabbath from violence is like a parade.  A peaceful processional.  The one without the permit, on the other side of town.  A processional through time.  This mobile sanctuary in time.  A processional with Jesus out in front, the living and the dead drawn in to this march toward life.